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Prodigal Summer Hardcover – October 17, 2000
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There is no one in contemporary literature quite like Barbara Kingsolver. Her dialogue sparkles with sassy wit and earthy poetry; her descriptions are rooted in daily life but are also on familiar terms with the eternal. With Prodigal Summer, she returns from the Congo to a "wrinkle on the map that lies between farms and wildness." And there, in an isolated pocket of southern Appalachia, she recounts not one but three intricate stories.
Exuberant, lush, riotous--the summer of the novel is "the season of extravagant procreation" in which bullfrogs carelessly lay their jellied masses of eggs in the grass, "apparently confident that their tadpoles would be able to swim through the lawn like little sperms," and in which a woman may learn to "tell time with her skin." It is also the summer in which a family of coyotes moves into the mountains above Zebulon Valley:
The ghost of a creature long extinct was coming in on silent footprints, returning to the place it had once held in the complex anatomy of this forest like a beating heart returned to its body. This is what she believed she would see, if she watched, at this magical juncture: a restoration.The "she" is Deanna Wolfe, a wildlife biologist observing the coyotes from her isolated aerie--isolated, that is, until the arrival of a young hunter who makes her even more aware of the truth that humans are only an infinitesimal portion in the ecological balance. This truth forms the axis around which the other two narratives revolve: the story of a city girl, entomologist, and new widow and her efforts to find a place for herself; and the story of Garnett Walker and Nannie Rawley, who seem bent on thrashing out the countless intimate lessons of biology as only an irascible traditional farmer and a devotee of organic agriculture can. As Nannie lectures Garnett, "Everything alive is connected to every other by fine, invisible threads. Things you don't see can help you plenty, and things you try to control will often rear back and bite you, and that's the moral of the story."
Structurally, that gossamer web is the story: images, phrases, and events link the narratives, and these echoes are rarely obvious, always serendipitous. Kingsolver is one of those authors for whom the terrifying elegance of nature is both aesthetic wonder and source of a fierce and abiding moral vision. She may have inherited Thoreau's mantle, but she piles up riches of her own making, blending her extravagant narrative gift with benevolent concise humor. She treads the line between the sentimental and the glorious like nobody else in American literature. --Kelly Flynn
From Publishers Weekly
HA beguiling departure for Kingsolver, who generally tackles social themes with trenchantly serious messages, this sentimental but honest novel exhibits a talent for fiction lighter in mood and tone than The Poisonwood Bible and her previous works. There is also a new emphasis on the natural world, described in sensuous language and precise detail. But Kingsolver continues to take on timely issues, here focusing on the ecological damage caused by herbicides, ethical questions about raising tobacco, and the endangered condition of subsistence farming. A corner of southern Appalachia serves as the setting for the stories of three intertwined lives, and alternating chapters with recurring names signal which of the three protagonists is taking center stage. Each character suffers because his or her way of looking at the world seems incompatible with that of loved ones. In the chapters called "Predator," forest ranger Deanna Wolfe is a 40-plus wildlife biologist and staunch defender of coyotes, which have recently extended their range into Appalachia. Wyoming rancher Eddie Bondo also invades her territory, on a bounty hunt to kill the same nest of coyotes that Deanna is protecting. Their passionate but seemingly ill-fated affair takes place in summertime and mirrors "the eroticism of fecund woods" and "the season of extravagant procreation." Meanwhile, in the chapters called "Moth Love," newly married entomologist Lusa Maluf Landowski is left a widow on her husband's farm with five envious sisters-in-law, crushing debtsDand a desperate and brilliant idea. Crusty old farmer Garnett Walker ("Old Chestnuts") learns to respect his archenemy, who crusades for organic farming and opposes Garnett's use of pesticides. If Kingsolver is sometimes too blatant in creating diametrically opposed characters and paradoxical inconsistencies, readers will be seduced by her effortless prose, her subtle use of Appalachian patois. They'll also respond to the sympathy with which she reflects the difficult lives of people struggling on the hard edge of poverty while tied intimately to the natural world and engaged an elemental search for dignity and human connection. (Nov.)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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The author hardly shrinks from the necessitous sexual, reproductive elements of nature; her characters do not escape its pull. The normally wary Deanna, especially when it comes to protecting a fledgling coyote family, is breathlessly overwhelmed by the rugged, 28 year old Eddie Bondo, an itinerant hunter, who simply appears one day on her mountain. Lusa, the despised widow of the favored youngest son of a family of Appalachian rednecks, finds her sexual awareness awakened by the raw attraction of a teen-age nephew.
The relentless cycles of birth, growth, decay, and death across seasons and years is well presented by lyrical descriptions and discussions of the life phases of moths, beetles, coyotes, plants, herbivores, carnivores, etc. The characters seem at times to be more mouthpieces for the author's environmental agenda, than fully fleshed out. The men are for the most part set pieces. As it turns out, the characters are connected. However, the tribulations of Lusa in recovering from the death of her husband constitutes the main plot thread. Over all, this book has a certain sensuality and is not without its educative aspects, but is not a particularly riveting story.
It isn't that I do not agree with the author's views on the environment. I do, in fact, agree with much that she writes, especially her views on the use of chemicals and their cancer causing agents. It is her imposing style with its class connotations that I disagree with. For example, Deana, through her college education, could very well impose her values on Eddie, a bounty hunter. Rather than share her knowledge, she argues her points from a position of power---knowledge is power until you impose it. In addition, class becomes more obvious when we realize that Deana could choose to live in the wilderness knowing fully well that if she ever wanted to abandon that lifestyle, she could always fall back on her degree and professional experiences. How many people in that rural setting could afford to live Deana's lifestyle of privilege and power? So, if a farmer, living at subsistence level, does not have the opportunity for supposedly the "right" education, does that necessarily mean that those who have knowledge and are enlightened can impose their values and beliefs on others? And is this the only way? The author could have used an approach where Deana was actually sharing her skills in a non-competitive way with Eddie rather than imposing her ideas on him. The "missionary" idea of "converting" people has not escaped this book---it is reflected in the way the main characters manage their own lives and in their need to manage the lives of others.
This brings us to our other character Lusa Maluf Landowski. Lusa walks in equipped with a college education not quite telling the farmers what to do as Deana. The book, however, focuses on her way of living to the exclusion of almost everything else. In this manner, Lusa too disregards the farmers' values and the way in which they run their lives. I think what is so hard for Lusa and Deana to comprehend is that they are privileged women telling low-income farmers what they should be doing. It seems like these environmentalists, from a particular class, tend to prioritize their own issues over others while ignoring what are "real" issues for low-income farmers on a day-to-day basis. Rather than jointly look for solutions, it is this ignorance and condescension of the farmers "real" issues that perpetuate a class system in this book---class here seemingly has another owner though in a more "non-profity" sense. The author's efforts for a just cause becomes a just cause fought in an unjust manner. It is only when we link all of our struggles together and place them on an equal footing with each other is when our struggles for a just cause will be a just struggle.
In addition I had a hard time understanding why the author made Lusa foreign or different---Palestinian and Jewish, or why Crystal, her niece by marriage, was a girl growing up as a boy. It seems that there was a need to add these dimensions to include and celebrate diversity without putting in much of an effort other than a few foreign words and predictions of a might be lesbian. It does not seem that either of these aspects of Lusa and Crystal was well developed to show that the author was genuine and sincere in portraying diversity. Also the author's need to ridicule country people's accent drives home my point of class and the owners of (the means of production) class who think that their way is the only way.
Change, which is what this book is essentially about, is hardly possible with class seeping through the author's advocacy efforts. If Kingsolver really needs to advocate for anything, she could do so by showing empathy for the farmers and low-income groups in general by addressing how expensive alternative food and products are. The main characters in the novel could not connect with the struggles of the farmers, and neither did they really try. There was always an opposing argument rather than the women taking the trouble to understand the lives of farmers when it came to advocating for change. If there is an absolute need to "change" people then people need to be provided with facts, the tools and skills, and the space for them to form their own opinions. If the advocate for change goes beyond that, then this advocate is crossing the line and invades other people's territory and space. The effort becomes counter productive.
Prodigal Summer in portraying the ideas and opinions of educated women from a certain class over the ideas of low-income farmers, becomes very one-dimensional and non-pluralistic. The novel resembles and reflects the values of the current environmentalist movement that smacks of both racism and classism. As a foreigner and a woman of color, I feel disturbed at the exclusion of others' values and beliefs, at people's accents being ridiculed, and of the use of foreign words for token purposes. The class connotations in particular left me with a sour feeling in my stomach.